equipment
Essential Tools for Baking—and Eating!—the Best Bread
The basics and a handful of specialty tools have helped me level up my bread-baking game.
12-14-2020
Lisa McManus

I’ve always baked bread, but in a super-casual, no-special-gear way. And I really love kneading dough; it’s the grownup equivalent of Play-Doh. 

But I remember how in 2007, when Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread hit the scene, we all fell hard for the gorgeous, professional browning and crustiness you can get by baking your loaf inside a super-hot Dutch oven. Our Test Kitchen recipe for Almost No-Knead Bread even offered flavor improvements to the original recipe. I (reluctantly) quit kneading and (enthusiastically) pressed my Dutch oven into service as a bread oven. (A side note, if you have our favorite Dutch oven and don’t like to see it darken from baking at high temperatures, it’s a good time to grab our Best Buy model from Cuisinart. I’ve also used a vintage uncoated cast-iron combo Dutch oven with an inverted-skillet lid that I happened to have.)

When Cook’s Illustrated developed an awesome recipe for homemade baguettes, I tested linen couches to cradle and shape the loaves, as well as razorlike bread lames (pronounced “lahmes”), used by professionals to slash the surface of the dough. Slashing creates expansion zones and flavorful ridges of crust, as well as fanciful decorative patterns. (Our favorite lame, from Breadtopia, is super sharp and comes with five extra blades.)

And this past spring, while I was stuck at home, like thousands of others I began to grow my own #quarantinystarter and bake loaf after loaf of sourdough. This slightly more finicky dough takes some special handling and equipment, and I started investing a bit more in my technique and gear.

Here are a few gadgets that I’ve found help me make the whole process easier, faster, and more enjoyable, with more professional results.

For Your Sourdough Starter

First, a mason-type jar with a two-part lid helps create a favorable environment for nurturing your starter and monitoring its rise and fall. I like to have a small (4-ounce) and large (16-ounce) version, the first for the tiny starter and the latter for the “discard” (which is useful for lots of delicious recipes like pancakes, biscuits, and more). I feed the starter once a week and transfer the extra to the discard jar, and I’m always ready to bake bread.

A digital scale, mini prep bowls (I like this classic set), and a skinny jar spatula are invaluable for measuring and mixing when you feed and build up your starter (also called the levain) for baking. The spatula in particular is essential for scraping the jar and transferring and mixing precise portions of new flour and water into the sticky starter. And while you can use volume measurements like cups and tablespoons for baking, you will be much happier with your results if you switch to a scale. It’s a far easier way to measure!

For Mixing, Scraping, and Rising

Next, when beginning to mix any sticky dough—not just sourdough—I reach for my dough whisk, a supremely underrated tool that can blend water into flour without getting gummed up to the point where it’s useless, like any other tool (wooden spoon, silicone spat, a whisk, your hands) you might try at this precarious stage. Every last scrap of dough releases from its whirly shape, which is very satisfying and certainly makes cleanup easier. A bench scraper is my friend for scraping up scraps of dough and flour from the counter, and later, I use it again for scooping up, dividing, and turning the dough.

You’ll need a bit of our favorite plastic wrap, plus medium and large glass mixing bowls for mixing and letting dough rise. Some pros rave about letting dough rise in a Cambro, because you can use the measurement markings to gauge how much it has risen. I don’t have one at home, but maybe someday! Our sourdough recipes call for a floured dish towel-lined colander for shaping (we use it as a DIY banneton, a basket that holds and shapes dough during its long rise and fermentation). 

For Baking

I preheat my Dutch oven along with the oven itself. Once it’s hot, grab cooking spray (or in my case, a pastry brush and extra-virgin olive oil) to lightly cover a sheet of parchment to work as a sling as you lower the dough into the hot Dutch oven. I pull out our winning lame and slash the dough at a roughly 45-degree angle under the surface. I used to use my sharpest knife and it still wasn’t quite up the precision and control I got with a real lame. Worse, a knife can drag and stretch the dough instead of cutting it, which is pretty dismaying after all the hours of work you put in to this point. So, yes, a lame is a worthwhile investment! 

Finally, a great pair of oven mitts and a sturdy wire cooling rack are essentials, first for when you need to remove the ripping-hot Dutch oven lid halfway through baking, and later, when you take the whole thing out of the oven. And an instant-read thermometer lets you check that the interior is fully baked. 

For Eating

Once it’s out of the oven, the bread looks super-tempting. Our recipes always say that you should wait a couple of hours before slicing it, but I just can’t do it. Hot, freshly baked bread is one of the chief joys of life, in my opinion. I just get some salted butter out of the fridge when I put the bread in to bake, so it will be spreadable as soon as I make the first slice. Oh, and don’t forget a great bread knife—our favorite from Mercer Culinary knocks the competition out of the park when it comes to precise slicing of even the crustiest bread without ripping or tearing. 

A day or so later, I like to toast slices of my homemade bread (if there’s any left!). For that, a long-slot toaster is the best, because you can fit oversized slices. Our winner from Breville and our Best Buy from Dash are both good choices. 

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